Artist using satellite imagery to change the world from above

Ben Grant was a recent college graduate working at a consulting firm in New York City when he had a monumental shift in perspective. Inspired by a short film examining the Overview Effect, or the cognitive shift astronauts undergo when they see Earth from space, Grant began downloading, cropping and compiling a collection of high-definition satellite images for a website and Instagram account he called Daily Overview.

One of the first images to inspire Daily Overview: the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base Aircraft Graveyard in Arizona. Photo: Courtesy of Ben Grant

Originally, he meant to share his images with friends and family, but after Fast Company published an article on the project in 2014, Daily Overview exploded, attracting over half a million Instagram followers virtually overnight. The success led to a book deal, and this past fall, 28-year-old Grant published an anthology of his images, titled “Overview.”

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In addition to his book and online success, Grant has been featured on a TED Talk and will open up galleries in Berlin and Barcelona this fall. GrindTV caught up with him to discuss Daily Overview, human impact and the view from up there.

Highway overpass or work of art? You decide. Photo: Courtesy of Ben Grant

When did you know you were onto something with this Overview project?
I found this small community on Reddit called “Aerial Porn” — people who love aerial photographs — and I posted one of the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport even before I had a website. In one day it got, like, 400,000 to 500,000 views.

The Empty Quarter is the largest sand desert in the world and features raised dried lake beds like these at its center. Photo: Courtesy of Ben Grant

What is it about this view from above that attracts so many people?
It comes down to a couple of things: You can see so much, you can see vastness that you can’t see from the ground, you can see the entirety of something.

I’m able to show an entire airport, from end to end. The entirety of an agricultural facility, the entirety of a factory, and I don’t think that if you’re at a place or even up in a plane or helicopter that you can get that sense of scale.

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I also think the flatness and 2-D aspect of the images is kind of confusing. That ability to confuse people or get them to ask questions is very powerful because we are not used to seeing things this way.

Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Courtesy of Ben Grant

How do you use these images to tell a bigger story?
Showing people something that’s brand new, it makes them ask questions, so I started writing captions to provide that context. I think making it digestible so people can actually read it was always on my mind. It was a response to people’s inquisitiveness and encouragement for them to be inquisitive themselves.

What have you learned through your Overview project?
I’m glad I was open to [Overview] not just covering the classic forms of human impact that we think of, with deforestation and fossil fuel burning and mining, but to basically anything in which humans play a part.

It opened the lens to me of how vast and far reaching our impact is. Think of the world or transportation; [most of us] are not thinking about shipping all of the time, or driving around on highways or trains, or airplanes. That alone can be shown in so many ways.

High above the Playa, Burning Man. Photo: Courtesy of Ben Grant

How do you collect these images?
[That] it was all human-impact stuff helped make it less overwhelming at first. It wasn’t just “open the map and hope.” If I had done that, it would have been a disaster. So I started with ideas about energy, about mining, then thinking more specifically and thinking where that was happening before doing any sort of searching on the Internet.

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Also, when I read the news and see a story on glaciers melting in Greenland, I’m going to go look at it. So it can be really adapted to current events. I want to keep it relevant.

Shipping containers in the port of Antwerp, Belgium. Photo: Courtesy of Ben Grant

But how does it all work?
I’m in a partnership with a satellite company that gives me access to their software and their archives so I can then select on the map, which starts a download process. But then I get it in many pieces, so I have to stitch it together and compose it.

It’s an interesting process. The imagery is 2-D, so I can flip it upside down, and I will. You can treat these like art and figure out which orientation is the most captivating. That’s the artistic process.

Ships waiting outside the world’s largest port, the Port of Singapore. Photo: Courtesy of Ben Grant

What do you hope that the viewer takes away from this project?
I hope that people start to think outside their bubbles, for lack of a better word. I think things like Facebook reinforce those bubbles and you only see your friends, your family and the people you went to school with. Overall I think that worldviews are potentially shrinking because of technology, and I think this is a way to actually expand your worldview to see all of it (potentially).